Calcutta, July 31: The mask is slipping to reveal an unfamiliar, ugly face of Calcutta, the city that prides itself as the haven of secular values and offered shelter to the face of the Gujarat riots, Qutubuddin Ansari.
Many Muslim youths who come to Calcutta from the districts to study or find work are forced to hide behind a Hindu identity to make themselves acceptable to prospective landlords.
Meet Rakesh Dutta alias Noor Alam, who has just completed his masters degree in history from Calcutta University and is now hunting for a job. The 24-year-old came to the city from Behrampore a few years ago.
Searching for a house on rent, he ran into an invisible wall of rejection with a shadow of a suggestion that his religion ' and that he was from Murshidabad, a Muslim-majority district ' was standing in the way.
“I finally changed my name to Rakesh Dutta because no one was willing to give me a flat on rent if I told them my religion,” Noor said. “I asked a landlord the reason for the discrimination; he told me that we (Muslims) could not be trusted. Besides, I could be an ISI agent'.”
This mindset has forced many Muslim room-seekers to virtually huddle in ghettos.
Aminul Haque (name changed on request), a mathematics honours student at Jadavpur University, was thrown out of his rooms when his landlord found out he was a Muslim from Jalangi, Murshidabad.
“Tired of facing refusals, I had introduced myself as Rajat Bhowmick (Hindu name changed to protect identity), but the cat was out of the bag when someone peeped into my room and found me offering namaz,” Aminul said.
He now stays with six university mates in a hostel. Three of them are Muslims, all using assumed Hindu names.
Ramendra Seal of Selimpur Road is one of the landlords who wouldn’t grant Aminul right of entry to his house. Contacted by The Telegraph, he snapped: “Why should I tell you the reason I turned him back'”
Tofajul Haque from Islampur, Murshidabad, has taken on the surname Biswas, “which is found also among Muslims, because I could not compromise any further”.
But Shamiul Islam from Old Malda went the whole hog. “I have a Saraswati idol on my table, and I am known as Rajat Chatterjee (name changed), a devout Hindu boy. Until I get a job and buy a flat in the city, do I have any alternative'” he asked.
After a series of rebuffs at Gariahat and Alipore, the economics student and a group of other Muslim youths have together rented rooms in Vivekananda Nagar on the northern fringes. None of them dares reveal his identity.
Noor is luckier: his new landlord at Belghoria, Sadhanlal Basu, doesn’t mind having Muslim tenants. Yet Basu has made sure that his neighbours do not find out Noor’s real name.
“Aamaar nijer na holeo, pariparshik somosya achhe (Though I have no problems; the neighbours might),” Basu said.
According to Swapan Kumar Pramanik, sociologist and vice-chancellor of Vidyasagar University, Calcutta is a “premature metropolis”. He explained that a metropolis should be a “melting pot” of all communities, but this has not happened in Calcutta.
“The (mental) distance between the two communities and the residential segregation, a sense of mistrust and insecurity ' all this has contributed to this problem,” said Pramanik.
“A Muslim teacher I had appointed recently faced enormous trouble getting rooms. No landlord would spell out the actual reason, but it’s not too difficult to guess.”
Tofajul had a question: “Is this city as secular as they claim'”